SANTA FE, N.M. — Artist Francisco Benítez’s women are trapped in their time, one enslaved by the ruling class attitude toward her race, another boxed in by the expectations of her gender and her class.
Both are caught between worlds. The aristocratic Doña Inés is transplanted to the raw frontier of the New World, and her Native American maidservant is plucked from her tribal home and forced behind walls filled with a European lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that some of that feeling is echoed in Benítez’s own and his family’s experiences.
The artist said his father was a born-and-bred Spaniard who proudly clung to that culture, even though his love for his wife, well-known flamenco dancer Maria Benítez, kept him much of the time in the United States.
“I always felt that angst as a kid, like he was a fish out of water,” Benítez said.
So the young man got a strong dose of Spanish culture with his father, yet, while his parents were on tour, he also spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother, a Chippewa from the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. She taught in Indian schools and found her way to Tesuque and Taos, he said.
She was proud of her heritage, but also of her education, which took her away from her tribe and family, and prevented her from speaking her native language. “She could hang out with rich Anglo people at the opera … but she still felt very Native,” he said. “My dad and she had a sense of displacement. That’s what this show is about.”
Part of it may also be about him.
As a child, Benítez attended the Indian schools where his grandmother taught, but didn’t really fit in because he looked Anglo, he said.
For high school and some college, he lived in Spain, linking with his father’s branch of the family.
“I was going back and forth between these two worlds,” Benítez said.
He explores those sensations in his new multi-media exhibition, “Doña Inés Lost Her Slipper,” opening 5-7 p.m. Thursday at the Santa Fe Community College Visual Arts Gallery.
Director of Galleries Clark Baughan said that, while outside artists do have shows on campus, it’s somewhat unusual to have a one-person show. But Benítez’s proposal intrigued him. “He’s ambitious, really methodical and clear-thinking,” Baughan said. “He’s developing ideas for three or four bodies of work … .
“It’s really dynamic … . When you go into yourself, you begin to examine a lot of issues. He’s got the chops,” the gallery director added of the artist’s command of the technical aspects of his art.
Benítez said his idea for exploring the relationship between the fictional Doña Inés and her maidservant had its beginnings while he viewed painted portraits in the Prado in Madrid of 17th-century aristocratic women. He was captured by their elaborate dresses and flamboyant make-up. “I started imagining what their lives were like, what was going on behind that image,” he said.
He said he didn’t want to be too specific as to place in his exhibition and didn’t see the show simply as an indictment against the brutality of Europeans coming up against the native inhabitants. “It’s a subtext, but it’s not all that’s there,” Benítez said.
He’s also a little nervous that local Native Americans might object to the fact that his model for the maidservant, Mona Bear, is a Chippewa and not from a Southwest tribe.
But the eerie serendipity of that choice came when Baughan recommended one of his assistants and Benítez discovered that her family came from the same very small village as his grandmother.
For that matter, the model for the Spanish Doña Inés, Leigh Gregoire Scariano, is Italian-American, he said.
Behind the mask
In portraying the two women, he looks for the person behind the mask.
For Doña Inés, that meant probing past the physical grandeur of her wardrobe, wig and jewels, which at the time were a required symbol of her class.
For the maidservant, it meant seeking the emotions and thoughts behind the stoic mask.
In one series of photographs, he depicts the individual emergence as her portrait morphs from a total blur to a sharp focus. In a painted series of portraits, he portrays her face in a variety of ways, sometimes showing different emotions, sometimes almost literally masked, referencing both modernist ideas of using abstraction to grasp the essence of a subject, as well as echoing many tribes’ identification with a spirit animal.
Through it all, though, her piercing , dark-eyed gaze remains the same.
With these portraits, Benítez freed himself from the usual classical techniques he uses and turned to broader, sometimes slashing, strokes of paint.
For Doña Inés, he also experimented with pastel portraiture used by French artists of the period. In other paintings, he used classic oil techniques for her image, while using a flatter background common in Latin American painting, he said.
Details in some of the paintings draw on other historic references. Tiny labels written next to various fruits, for example, or thought bubbles emerging from Doña Inés, mimic extraordinary caste labeling systems he discovered that assigned designations to each different fractional mixture of various races or ethnicities. Mestizo – a descendent of a European parent and a Native American parent – is the term most commonly known, he said, but a host of others apparently were in use at one time.
In the process of examining women boxed in by their circumstances, Benítez may have freed himself.
In art school, he noted, students were told to express themselves and experiment. But out in the real world, “it becomes increasingly scary to take risks,” he said.
“I realized I was kind of dying. I needed to do something.” So he launched this project, incorporating video, audio, photography, drawings and more into the final installation.
“I spread my wings a bit,” he said.